The Top 10 NBA Draft Lottery Steals of All Time
On Tuesday, May 20, the fates of 14 NBA teams hang in the balance when the league conducts its annual draft lottery.
For clubs desperate to land one of the top three picks in the hopes that Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker or Joel Embiid might be the next LeBron James (2003 No. 1), Kevin Durant (2007 No. 2) or Tim Duncan (1997 No. 1), there's still reason to be optimistic if the pingpong balls don't bounce their way.
Since its inception in 1985, a great number of players taken later in the lottery have produced spectacular NBA careers—they are the steals.
In addition to a player's accolades, other factors come into account when ranking the top steals in draft lottery history. The number at which he was chosen as well as the quality of players selected before him must be considered.
For example, while nobody would think Paul Pierce (1998 No. 10) has had a better career than Kevin Garnett (1995 No. 5), Pierce outranks Garnett on this list because he was drafted later, and with several regrettable picks in front of him.
Not Quite Big Enough Steals
Ray Allen (1996 No. 5) and Dwyane Wade (2003 No. 5)
Current Miami Heat teammates Ray Allen and Dwyane Wade have five championships and 20 All-Star appearances between them. However, it can be difficult for players drafted as high as fifth to be thought of as steals, especially when there is an abundance of talent taken ahead of them.
In Allen's case, the four picks in front of him were Allen Iverson, Marcus Camby, Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Stephon Marbury, all quality NBA players. Three of the four selected before Wade became stars—LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh.
Too Soon to Judge
Stephen Curry played in his first All-Star Game this past February and has earned a reputation as the best shooter in the NBA. But the thing that makes him such a steal is the two other far inferior point guards selected immediately before him. The Minnesota Timberwolves had both the fifth and sixth picks in 2009, and used them on Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn.
To this point the two-time All-Star Paul George has been the best player from his draft, and he was an early MVP candidate this season as the Indiana Pacers jumped out to a 46-13 record.
Damian Lillard was the league's Rookie of the Year in 2013 and an All-Star in 2014. He cemented his stardom in the first round of this year's playoffs with a series-clinching three-pointer at the buzzer of Game 6 as the Portland Trail Blazers upset the Houston Rockets.
Michael Carter-Williams won Rookie of the Year in 2014 and became just the third first-year player in league history to average at least 16 points, six rebounds and six assists per game (along with Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson). He was also the first player to win the award after being drafted outside the top 10 since Mark Jackson in 1987.
No. 10: Chris Mullin (1985 No. 7)
The Golden State Warriors chose Chris Mullin with the final pick of the first-ever NBA draft lottery in 1985. Taken immediately after journeymen Jon Koncak and Joe Kleine, Mullin would go on to become a five-time All-Star.
From 1988-1993 he averaged more that 25 points per game while leading the Warriors to five consecutive playoff appearances.
Mullin was a member of the USA Olympic "Dream Team" in 1992 and also received first team All-NBA honors that year. In 2011 he was elected into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
No. 9: Robert Horry (1992 No. 11)
Robert Horry never appeared in an All-Star Game, but his accomplishments in the postseason are legendary. He earned the nickname "Big Shot Rob" for his uncanny ability to make clutch baskets in key playoff moments.
Horry is one of just nine players to ever win seven or more championships, and he is the only one to do it since members of the Boston Celtics did in the 1960s. He is also one of just two NBA players (John Salley is the other) to win titles with three different franchises: the Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs.
Besides Shaquille O'Neal and Alonzo Mourning who were chosen with the first and second picks, Horry at No. 11 was the prize of the 1992 lottery.
No. 8: Kevin Johnson (1987 No. 7)
Like Mullin two years before him, Kevin Johnson was the last player picked from the lottery in 1987.
After winning the NBA's Most Improved Player award in 1989, Johnson became a three-time All-Star ('90, '91 and '94). Over a span of seven seasons from '89-95 he carried the Phoenix Suns to a league-best 394 wins, an average of 56 per year.
Johnson is one of just three players in NBA history to average at least 20 points and 12 assists per game for an entire season, along with Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas. He is also one of only three players (with Thomas and Oscar Robertson) to put up 20 points and 10 assists per game for three consecutive seasons.
No. 7: Amar'e Stoudemire (2002 No. 9)
To the extreme pleasure of the Suns, three of the four players picked directly before Amar'e Stoudemire were Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Dajuan Wagner and Chris Wilcox.
Stoudemire won the Rookie of the Year award in 2003 and played in six All-Star games between 2005 and 2011. During that seven-season span he averaged 23.6 points and 8.8 rebounds per game while shooting 55 percent from the floor.
What earns Stoudemire his place on this list is the fact that despite being taken ninth overall, he's put together the best NBA career of anyone drafted in 2002.
No. 6: Tracy McGrady (1997 No. 9)
Tracy McGrady was voted the NBA's Most Improved Player with the Orlando Magic in 2001 and was an All-Star for both Orlando and Houston over seven consecutive seasons from '01 through '07. He also won the league's scoring title two years in a row in 2003 and 2004, averaging 32.1 points per game in '03.
The following unremarkable players were chosen just ahead of McGrady with picks four through eight: Antonio Daniels, Tony Battie, Ron Mercer, Tim Thomas and Adonal Foyle. With the exception of No. 1 overall selection Tim Duncan, McGrady was easily the class of the 1997 lottery.
No. 5: Kevin Garnett (1995 No. 5)
Kevin Garnett won the MVP award with the Timberwolves in 2004.
He later took home Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2008 while guiding the Celtics to a championship. Garnett led the league in rebounding for four straight seasons from '04 to '07, and currently sits in 14th place on the NBA's all-time scoring list. He's also a 15-time All-Star.
Easily the best player taken in 1995, Garnett would rank even higher on this list if it weren't for the very productive careers of the four picks ahead of him. No. 1 Joe Smith was a fairly mediocre NBA player, but Antonio McDyess, Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace were fellow All-Stars.
No. 4: Scottie Pippen (1987 No. 5)
Scottie Pippen won six NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls alongside Michael Jordan. But in the year Jordan temporarily retired, Pippen finished third in the MVP voting and still managed to get Chicago within a game of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Pippen played in seven All-Star Games, was elected First Team All-NBA three times and Defensive First Team eight times.
While the Spurs likely made the right choice taking David Robinson No. 1 in 1987, the Suns, New Jersey Nets and Los Angeles Clippers clearly erred by passing on Pippen in favor of Armon Gilliam, Dennis Hopson and Reggie Williams.
No. 3: Paul Pierce (1998 No. 10)
Paul Pierce is a 10-time NBA All-Star and was Finals MVP when Boston captured the 2008 title at the hands of the Lakers.
Pierce averaged over 18 points per game for 14 consecutive seasons and is the second leading scorer in the storied history of the Celtics franchise. He also ranks 18th on the league's all-time scoring list.
Pierce was nearly stabbed to death in late September of 2000, but did not miss a single game the following season. The next March, Shaquille O'Neal nicknamed him "The Truth" after Pierce scored 42 points against the Lakers.
Boston found amazing value in Pierce as the 10th pick in 1998, especially with players like Michael Olowokandi, Raef LaFrentz, Robert Traylor and Larry Hughes all taken earlier. However, Pierce's status as one of the greatest draft lottery steals in NBA history is slightly diminished by the selection made just before him...
No. 2: Dirk Nowitzki (1998 No. 9)
Like Pierce, Dirk Nowitzki has both a title and a Finals MVP under his belt from 2011 against the Heat. But the rest of his a career achievements are even more impressive than the former Celtics captain.
Nowitzki is a 12-time All-Star and was the NBA MVP in 2007. He is the top scorer in Dallas Mavericks history and sits at No. 10 on the league's all-time list. Nowitzki is also one of just six players to ever shoot 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent from three-point range and 90 percent from the free-throw line all in the same season.
The Mavericks have made the playoffs 13 of the last 14 years, and Nowitzki is the reason why.
No. 1: Kobe Bryant (1996 No.13)
Kobe Bryant is a five-time NBA champion who's been selected for 16 All-Star Games. He won the MVP in 2008 and took home back-to-back scoring titles in 2006 and 2007.
Only three players in the history of the league have scored more points in their careers than Bryant—Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
While a number of spots in the rankings were very difficult to determine, choosing the single greatest steal in draft lottery history was a piece of cake. Not only is Bryant the best overall player on the list, at pick No. 13, he was also taken later than every other candidate.
Statistics and information courtesy of NBA.com.